By 2015, all EU countries will have to deliver what’s called “good” water to meet the Water Framework Directive, and a key aspect will be keeping nitrate levels below the 50mg/litre maximum set by the World Health Organisation, and as dictated by the EU Nitrates Directive.

Meeting that target would mean radical changes to UK farming practice, ADAS’s Roger Sylvester-Bradley suggested recently in a controversial report (see Crops 25 March and FW 21 April).

Annual cropping in the drier parts of England would be incompatible with this limit, he warned.

Cereal and break crops would have to be replaced by grassland, and nitrogen fertiliser use prohibited.

He saw no alternative unless the UK could offer exceptional reasons for seeking a derogation on EU rules.

He acknowledged it was a disturbing message, but his intention was to prepare the farming industry for further change, and ensure it worked together with the water industry to find practical solutions to long-term water management.

But growers and agronomists whose views we canvassed are, understandably, confused and want to know if ADAS is scaremongering or merely predicting the inevitable.

The consensus is that more questions must be answered to enable the UK to prepare before the legislation bites.

NFU vice president Paul Temple farms 320ha (790 acres) of mainly arable land near Driffield in North Yorkshire:

“It doesn’t make any sense to suggest that grassing down large parts of the country would improve water quality.

It would take decades before a useful reduction in nitrate pollution resulted.

“In any case, it’s a hypothetical situation and ADAS shouldn’t be guessing at what that may be.

It’s up to the water industry to keep abreast of the issue, and if necessary introduce a mechanism to prevent wholesale land use changes.

“Politicians should set rules that are achievable in the UK climate, or apply for a derogation.

Otherwise, all the technological progress we’ve made with fertiliser placement, such as in optimising milling wheat quality, will be wasted.”

AICC agronomist Peter Taylor looks after 5665ha (14,000 acres) in Essex and Hertfordshire:

“Do we really need to reduce nitrates in water?

What is a ‘safe’ level?

Chances are we’re likely to be stuck with the arbitrary 50mg/litre limit set years ago, even though it bears no relationship to public health.

“ADAS is right to raise this issue now, to activate research, to alert growers, but mainly to focus politicians’ minds on future land use.

It’s either home-grown food or rely on imports.

Farmers have shown they are capable of change, though they’d need adequate compensation.

“The Environment Agency and DEFRA are playing for time.

They can show Brussels we’ve taken preventative action, but that NVZs, catchments and training programmes are all but useless.

All ammunition in seeking a derogation perhaps?”

Richard Means of farm consultants, Strutt & Parker, advises growers throughout East Anglia:

“We’d be wary of reverting arable land to grass for the benefit of controlling nitrate pollution.

Many of our clients received financial support for putting land into grass under a previous government initiative within Nitrate Sensitive Areas, and have now been inadvertently penalised for it under the Single Payment scheme.

The issue is still to be resolved. Though it wasn’t intentional, we see this as a risk to any future scheme.

“On a wider scale, reducing UK cropping would lead to a reliance on imported food.

Imported produce may not be grown to such rigorously high standards, from a welfare and environmental point of view, as are common in the UK.

“Will consumers be happy with this?

Can they accept the additional pollution likely due to more road, sea and air miles?

And is it fair to increase pollution elsewhere as a result of increased production in other countries?”

fwarable@rbi.co.uk